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When I was in grade school, my grand­moth­er taught me how to play the C major scale, bass and tre­ble clef, on the Stein­way upright piano she had in her apart­ment. From that moment on, I want­ed to be a musi­cian and, from that moment on, every­one in my fam­i­ly did every­thing they could to dis­cour­age me. My moth­er and step­fa­ther did not allow me to join the orches­tra in the ele­men­tary school I attend­ed; and every time I brought the idea up, my grand­moth­er made sure I under­stood there was no way I’d ever make a liv­ing at it. I didn’t know this at the time, but she had sung pro­fes­sion­al­ly when she was younger, on the radio (though I don’t remem­ber the name of the pro­gram), and, if I remem­ber the sto­ry I’ve heard cor­rect­ly, Jim­my Durante was her accom­pa­nist at one point.

When I was in high school, I took revenge on my moth­er by join­ing the local drum & bugle corps. I want­ed to join as a drum­mer, but the corps need­ed horn play­ers, so I end­ed up play­ing the bass bari­tone bugle. I got be pret­ty good at it, but the hours I spent prac­tic­ing drove my moth­er, and my neigh­bors, a lit­tle bit crazy. For a while I thought I might stick with drum corps, which is a pret­ty big deal once you get past a cer­tain lev­el, but that didn’t work out, and so mak­ing music was some­thing I did pret­ty much only at my grandmother’s on that same Stein­way upright—the orig­i­nal sales receipt for which my moth­er gave me recent­ly so I could take, as she put it, “a trip down mem­o­ry lane:”

All that play­ing at my grandmother’s must have done me some good, because when I final­ly had the chance to take piano lessons, a semester’s worth dur­ing my senior year of high school with a teacher named, I think, Ms. Wise (or Weiss), I was good enough to take a stab at Ernesto Lecuona’s Malagueña:

It’s a beau­ti­ful piece of music, well-worth lis­ten­ing to, if you have a few min­utes:

By the time I start­ed col­lege, I was already begin­ning to think I’d be a writer, not a musi­cian, so when I played piano—which I did for hours each week in the prac­tice rooms at Stony Brook University—I did so only for myself. I nev­er tried to learn any actu­al songs, though, pre­fer­ring the impro­vised music I made based on what I’d learned in the cou­ple of music the­o­ry cours­es I took, until I start­ed work­ing at Sur­prise Lake Camp and got involved with the dra­ma pro­gram. I learned there to fake my way as accom­pa­nist through the music of Cats, A Cho­rus Line, Fid­dler on the Roof and more. Then, I met my friend Bill, who had ambi­tions to become a singer-song­writer, and we start­ed writ­ing music togeth­er. We even per­formed once at The Bit­ter End, though who­ev­er did the pub­lic­i­ty spelled my name wrong:

When my friend­ship with Bill end­ed, maybe because it ended—we did not part on good terms and I was angry and dev­as­tat­ed by the loss—I lost the desire to per­form on stage. I was get­ting seri­ous about my writ­ing and I made a con­scious deci­sion to focus my ener­gies there. I still played for my own enjoy­ment, and some­times I’d play for friends at a par­ty, but I no longer thought of music as some­thing I want­ed to pur­sue seri­ous­ly. That changed, for a time any­way, when I dis­cov­ered how easy it was to com­pose music with a MIDI syn­the­siz­er, a com­put­er, and the right soft­ware. I might not have want­ed to per­form in front of an audi­ence, but the idea of writ­ing music appealed to me. So I bought the equip­ment I need­ed and got start­ed.

Over the next three or four years, I com­posed fif­teen or so pieces that I thought of as com­plete, but the five in the Sound­cloud playlist at the top of this post are the only ones that sur­vive. I found them on my com­put­er not too long ago and I liked them well enough that I thought them worth pre­serv­ing and shar­ing with oth­ers.

These days, I don’t play much piano at all, but I miss it. I real­ly do.

2 Comments

  • Veron­i­ca Posted January 5, 2018 3:43 pm

    I remem­ber your play­ing the piano in Edin­burgh, both in the stu­dent lounge and at a local pub dur­ing a ses­sion. Even though I had known you for years at that point, I was sur­prised by your tal­ent. Your post has so many impor­tant points, includ­ing the need for sup­port dur­ing for­ma­tive years and your deter­mi­na­tion to find your artis­tic expres­sion. Who knows, if you had been encour­aged to be a musi­cian, would we have been denied your poet­ry? Would both have exist­ed? I had the priv­i­lege to hear you impro­vise and with oth­er musi­cians at the pub that one night. Per­haps it is time to sit at a key­board again. You might just have more to do there.

    • rich­new­man Posted January 5, 2018 3:50 pm

      Thanks, Ron­ny. That means a lot to me. I remem­ber play­ing in Scot­land, and I still have the pic­ture you took of my hands on the key­board. (I will need to dig that out.) I did, final­ly, call a piano tuner yes­ter­day, and the itch has been grow­ing in me to play more, par­tial­ly because, now that Sha­hob is so seri­ous­ly into music, talk­ing with him, lis­ten­ing to him, dis­cussing his com­po­si­tions, is putting me back in touch with my own desire. We’ll see. Again, thanks so much for your words.

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